Kate Brown is a current archaeological undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests include Osteology, Zooarchaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Scandinavian archaeology alongside the study of funerary rituals in human culture.
Cannibalism in Archaeology
Cannibalism is generally defined as the conspecific consumption of human flesh (White 1992). It is often used to support perceptions of savagery or primitiveness; however, the reasons for cannibalistic activity are often complex, and indicative of a basis in more than simply hunger, with evidence for this based across a long time period around the world (Hogg 1958).
There are two major classifications of cannibalism; exocannibalism, the eating of persons outside the cultural or social group, and endocannibalism, where members within the social or cultural group are consumed by other members (White 1992). These can further be broken down into the respective reasons behind the act of cannibalism, or the method of consumption:
Survival cannibalism – Also referred to as obligatory or emergency ration cannibalism. Actual or perceived starvation leads to cannibalistic consumption.
Aggressive cannibalism – Consumption of enemies. Can be interpreted as a form of reveng
Affectionate cannibalism – Consumption of friends or relatives. Thought to ‘keep them close’.
Ritual cannibalism – Also known as ceremonial cannibalism. The consumption of human flesh as a part of spiritual belief or ritual undertaking.
Gastronomic cannibalism – Cases of cannibalism that are neither starvation nor ritually motivated.
Auto-cannibalism – self consumption
How is it Recognised?
In an archaeological context, cannibalism can be very difficult to recognise. A majority of the following archaeological standards must be met to prove the presence of cannibalistic consumption at a site (Villa et al. 1986):
– Skull modification in order to expose the brain
– Facial mutilation
– Evidence of cooking, including burnt bone and fragment end polishing, which is a result of cooking in course ceramic pots
– Dismemberment or butchery marks. Similar to that seen on animal remains on the site if present
– Pattern of missing elements. Post processing discard again similar to the treatment of animal bones if present
– Green-stick splintering of long bones. This facilitates the extraction and consumption of bone marrow, which is highly nutritious
– Cut marks
– Bone breakage
– Anvil and hammerstone abrasions
– A significant number of missing vertebrae
The Cannibalism Debate
When discussing cannibalism, the argument against such interpretations cannot be ignored. As well as the evidence and interpretations supporting cannibalism, there are, as always, other schools of thought. Because archaeological evidence of cannibalistic activity is so varied and often circumstantial, this has been used to discredit any interpretations of cannibalism. Paul Bahn (1990) is well known for his work on cannibalism, and scepticism of interpretations of such activity at a site. Even with a protein only occurring in humans being found in a human coprolite at the Anasazi site of Mancos, in the South West of the USA (Whittell 1998), Bahn remains unconvinced.
Most opposition stems from the reliability of the evidence, both archaeological and ethnohistorical.
Because it is so circumstantial and subject to interpretation, it can be seen as inaccurate to derive interpretations of cannibalism from. Especially in ethnohistorical accounts of cannibalism, prejudices and the desire to promote themselves above ‘savages’ are relatively clear, and this is used to discredit them as an archaeological source (Arens 1979). Some have argued that this completely removes them from being used in terms of research into cannibalism, because such biases could have caused them to fabricate stories of the natives in order to elevate themselves above them. However, even though they may be subject to personal views and opinions, they are still a valid description of cannibalistic activities.
Recent research may yet put to rest the constant debate around cannibalism in archaeology. Hannah Koon (2003) of York University has conducted extensive research on the effects that cooking can have on bones, and how this can be visible in the archaeological record.
What began as research into heat induced morphological changes in bone collagen based on earlier research by Jane Richter (1986) has become one of the most high profile advancements in the cannibalism debate in recent years. Although the initial use of her work was in forensics, and not archaeological, it has been demonstrated to be particularly important in the debate surrounding cannibalism. In observing that the collagen structure of bones changes and deteriorates when heated, or more specifically boiled, it can be inferred within reasonable doubt that cannibalism must happen in at least some cases, as the cooking of human remains is extremely unlikely unless there is the intent of consumption.
Analysis using this new technique is currently being carried out on some of the human remains that have previously been recovered from Herxheim, a site in Germany with evidence of what has been interpreted as cannibalistic consumption (Boulestin et al. 2009), which I will cover in more detail in a later post. However, to my knowledge the results of this analysis is as of yet unpublished.
The Problem With Cannibalism
The main problem surrounding the interpretation of any cannibalistic consumption is that it is such a sensational subject, both within archaeology and outside it. There is the significant potential for any modern attitudes, semantics and social constructions we have created around the word cannibalism to affect any interpretations and research based around it. The current approach regarding and leading to conclusions of cannibalism can be quite restrictive and leading, with judgements based on associated archaeological interpretations as well as ethnohistoric accounts being used to both prove and disprove instances of cannibalism (White 1992). Following this approach can lead to the exclusion of many of the necessary indicative features of cannibalism, because under such an approach they become inconsistent with such instances.
Ideally, sites with suspected episodes of cannibalism should be approached on an individual basis, which would ensure an objective approach to something that can differ so dramatically across the archaeological record both in manifestation and survival of evidence.
Part two can be found here.
Bahn, P. 1990. Eating People Is Wrong. Nature 348.
Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Online image available at https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-NoQMPjLASeI/TW3DHg2iR3I/AAAAAAAAKu0/WoY_CZF7vOw/s1600/cannibal_holocaust.jpg last accessed 12th March 2011
Cannibalism in brazil described by Hans Staden. 1557. Online image available at http://spaghettiforever.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/cannibalismwikipedia/ last accessed 12th March 2011
Hogg, G. 1958. Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice. London: Hale.
Whittell, G. 1998. Tell-tale protein exposes truth about cannibals. The Times 8th November 1998.